Cole Survives, Phillies Start 2-0

For the first time since 2003, the Philadelphia Phillies have started the season with two wins. The team has become notorious for its slow starts, but has come out of the gates guns ablaze in 2010. The team scored 11 runs on Opening Day and tacked on another eight against the Nationals tonight. Ryan Howard hit another home run — a tape-measure shot to right-center that landed in the second deck — and Jimmy Rollins continued his great approach at the plate. Meanwhile, Cole Hamels survived through five innings without his curve and dealing with a postage stamp strike zone. Ryan Madson successfully converted a four-out save and gave the Phillies their first series win of 2010.

Rollins drew two walks in both games, only the third time he has accomplished that feat in his career. Last year, it took him until June 19 to walk twice in just one game. Clearly, Rollins is having a much easier time at the plate, which may yet prove that his 3.2% decline in walk rate from 2008 to ’09 may have been aberrant.

On the other side, Cole Hamels had a rough outing but was savvy enough to survive. Home plate umpire Mike Winters wasn’t giving him anything on the corners as you can see in this chart:

Any of the green boxes you see in or near the black box were strikes (or borderline pitches) that were called balls.

Hamels struggled with his curve. Five of his 103 pitches were curves, but none of the five were effective pitches. He appeared to be throwing them from a higher arm angle, which may explain the lack of control.

The pink boxes are Cole’s curves. Additionally, early on, it appeared to me that Cole was having problems finishing his pitches out of the wind-up. I don’t have video-capturing nor video-editing capabilities, so I can’t verify this, but that was my impression early in his start. It could be nothing — just a lack of comfort with the pitcher’s mound on the road — but it may be something to keep an eye on.

Danys Baez did not inspire confidence in his one-third of an inning tonight. While he threw hard, as his 95 MPH fastball will attest, he threw straight. Cristian Guzman led off the eighth inning by swinging at a first-pitch fastball from Baez and smoking it to left-center where it caromed off the wall. Shane Victorino judged it poorly and the ball skipped away, allowing Guzman to reach third base for a triple. Adam Kennedy then scorched a curve over the middle of the plate, a line drive to right fielder Jayson Werth, who nearly threw Guzman out of the plate. Pinch-hitter Willie Harris hit another straight Baez fastball hard, a double to right field. Baez was lucky the damage wasn’t greater.

Ryan Madson came on to finish out the eighth, striking out Ian Desmond effortlessly. Charlie Manuel allowed Madson to bat when the Phillies loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth inning against Nationals reliever Matt Capps. That decision in and of itself is not controversial, but Madson swung the bat twice. With the Phillies’ bullpen as barren as it is, it is very risky to allow Madson to take any cuts there. However, Mad Dog survived and was able to nail down the four-out save in the bottom half of the inning, a good sign of things to come.

Kyle Kendrick will oppose Craig Stammen in the series finale tomorrow at 4:35 ET. The Phillies haven’t opened up a season with three straight wins since 2001.

Game graph via FanGraphs.

Welcome Back, Nelson

Per Todd Zolecki:

The Phillies have claimed right-hander Nelson Figueroa off waivers, the team confirmed.

He is expected to join the Phillies, which means they would need to make a roster move upon his arrival. It is unclear when he will join the team, but he likely would be the team’s long man. Andrew Carpenter currently holds that role.

You may recall an article about Figueroa I wrote at Baseball Daily Digest a couple weeks ago. I concluded:

It’s hard to find a better bargain than Figueroa right now. And he’s giving the Mets every reason to insert him in the back of their starting rotation or in the bullpen. He has pitched eight scoreless innings in spring training with nine strikeouts and three walks. Spring training stats should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt — Johan Santana has a 9.00 ERA at the moment — but Figueroa certainly has pushed all the right buttons so far.

In the event the Mets do cut Figueroa, it would be hard to imagine 29 other teams passing up on such a low-risk, high-reward pitcher. Last year, he averaged 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings at the Major League level and had a K/BB ratio approaching 4.0 with Triple-A Buffalo.

With the team’s lack of starting pitching depth, this is a great pick-up by Ruben Amaro. Figueroa has been underrated throughout his career and will be able to fill in adequately as a spot starter or a short-term solution in the back of the Phillies’ starting rotation.

Additionally, Figueroa helps the Phillies meet their caterpillar eyebrow quota following the departure of Brett Myers.


Stats at The 700 Level

I’ve penned a couple Sabermetrics primers at The 700 Level. Here’s Part 1 on hitting stats, and here’s Part 2 on pitching stats. Still working out the format for tomorrow’s primer but it will involve at least fielding stats.

Looking forward to tonight’s Cole Hamels start. Hoping he gets off to a good start mostly because I am rooting for him but also because I don’t want to hear “I told you so” from the “Cole Hamels is a Nancy-boy” crowd.

If you haven’t seen Tom Verducci’s piece on Roy Halladay on MLB Network, I implore you to do so. Click here for the video.

A Rousing Success

Roy Halladay dazzled in his regular season debut with the Phillies against the Washington Nationals. After a shaky first inning in which he threw 19 pitches and allowed one run, Halladay breezed threw his final six innings. He finished with nine strikeouts as he had command and control of all of his pitches. Of his 88 pitches, 30 were cut fastballs, 23 were two-seam fastballs, 16 were curves, 15 were four-seam fastballs, and four were change-ups. The curve was especially vicious as the Nats swung and missed at six of the 16 he threw today.

The other star of the game was Placido Polanco. The third baseman was also making his debut (second debut, that is) with the Phils and was impressive both offensively and defensively. He turned a nifty 5-4-3 double play in the bottom of the fourth inning. In the seventh inning, Polanco broke the game wide open, hitting a grand slam to left field to bring the score to 11-1. He finished the day with three hits and six RBI in five at-bats.

Every Phillies starter, including Roy Halladay, finished the day with at least one hit. Jimmy Rollins looked to be back to his 2007-08 self, notching two hits, two walks, and a stolen base in six plate appearances. Ryan Howard, after an off-season in which his handling of breaking pitches was analyzed from every conceivable angle, launched a John Lannan slider into the seats in right field to start the Phillies’ scoring in the fourth inning. Overall, the Phillies drew nine walks to complement their 11 hits in an easy win over the Nationals.

There wasn’t much to criticize. Raul Ibanez continued to look lost at the plate and Antonio Bastardo wasn’t sharp in his two-thirds of an inning, but nothing should sound the alarms.

Some Opening Day notes:

  • Polanco became the 14th player in Major League history to drive in six or more runs on Opening Day. The record is seven, held by Corey Patterson (2003) and Brant Alyea (1970). Adam Lind drove in six runs last year with the Jays. No Phillie has ever driven in six runs on Opening Day.
  • Carlos Ruiz drew three walks, a great sign. The catcher has gradually become a more complete offensive player. He may find himself in the second-tier of catchers by the end of the season.
  • Halladay’s start, while good, does not even begin to crack the list of best Opening Day pitching performances. His game score of 68 ranks only 18th-best among Phillies Opening Day starts. Chris Short lays claim to the two best starts in 1965 and ’68. However, the Phillies haven’t had an Opening Day start as good as Halladay’s since Curt Schilling in 1998 when he threw eight shut-out innings.
  • The Phillies drew nine or more walks eight times last year. Unsurprisingly, they won all eight and scored double-digit runs in four of them.

Photo via Yahoo! Sports via Getty Images. Game graph via FanGraphs.

Phillies: Best Case, Worst Case

Notice anything new? Yes, I did get a haircut, thanks for noticing! But I was talking about the blog. If you direct your attention upwards, you’ll notice a navigation bar for the ESPN Sweetspot network. I encourage you to use that throughout the season to keep tabs on the other teams around Major League Baseball — I know I will.

As part of the Sweetspot expanding from 8 to 18 members today, ESPN has asked us to post a short “Best Case, Worst Case” for our respective teams. I encourage you to post your own “Best Case, Worst Case” in the comments below.

Best Case

The best case is actually a very realistic case. The Phillies have had one of the best training staffs in baseball exemplified by their winning the Baseball Prospectus Dick Martin award last year. So long as the team can stay healthy — and despite the woes of Brad Lidge, J.C. Romero, and Joe Blanton, they probably will — the Phillies are the heavy favorite to return to the World Series. We all know the Phillies will hit, they just need to keep their arms healthy.

Worst Case

It can all unravel for the Phillies if their bullpen becomes a mess, and there’s a chance it will. Both closer Brad Lidge and lefty J.C. Romero will not be ready for Opening Day, and the team is desperate for a left-hander in the bullpen. They auditioned Sergio Escalona and Mike Zagurski and passed on them two weeks before the end of spring training. Antonio Bastardo won the spot by default but he is no sure thing. Furthermore, Ryan Madson was not effective filling in for Lidge in the ninth inning last year, and there’s no guarantee that he will be in 2010 despite his electric fastball and whiff-inducing change-up. The bullpen is the biggest question mark for the Phillies this year.

Philadelphia Is Ready to Fall in Love Again

The city of Philadelphia is in a bit of shock today. Many went to sleep thinking they would wake up only to be told it was just a dream. Alas, it is not; the Donovan McNabb era is over in Philly. Number five brought the Eagles mere yards from their first ever Super Bowl in 2004 and reached the NFC Championship so frequently one was bound to think the Eagles had a pre-punched ticket. McNabb also holds many franchise records in individual statistics as well.

Most of Philly will be in quiet mourning today. Well, until about 1 PM when baseball finally resumes after a five-month hiatus. The Washington Nationals will take the field against the Phillies in the nation’s capital, presumably the only time the two teams will be alike in record.

Philly’s relationship with one star has ended, but a new one is just beginning.

Today, Philadelphia falls in love with Roy Halladay.

For three and a half months analysts, bloggers, and fans debated the merits of the trades that brought him here. On one side of the aisle, the Phillies were accused of not doing enough to win now; on the other side, they were accused of not getting enough in return for Cliff Lee, the ace pitcher we had come to enjoy over a four-month period of time in which the team came within two wins of a repeat World Series championship.

The time for talk has ended. GM Ruben Amaro’s decision to balance the future and the present has brought Roy Halladay to Washington, D.C. where he will make his first start with his new team. We will all pulling for him to succeed regardless of our interpretation of the road he traveled, as we should have been with McNabb.

If you’re not on the Halladay bandwagon yet, allow yourself to be swayed by his artful carving of hitters at home plate. You will be left mouth agape following one of his un-hittable curve balls or his two-seam fastball that runs back towards the plate. Say goodbye to #5 and say hello to the new #34.

It’s Opening Day. Let’s play some baseball.

Saturn ascends
Choose one or ten
Hang on or be
Humbled again

BDD: Phillies 2010 Preview

At Baseball Daily Digest, I preview the 2010 Philadelphia Phillies.

Will a revamped bench and bullpen help the Phillies become the first National League team to reach the World Series in three consecutive years since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals? That’s what is on the minds of Phillies fans going into 2010.

The preview went onto 8 pages in Microsoft Word and totals over 3,400 words. What I’m most proud of, though, is that I worked in the word “milquetoast” correctly. “Milquetoast” is such a great word.

If you missed it, my Phillies preview at The Hardball Times can be found here.

Once you’re done traversing the Phillies previews, you can check out my latest Fantasy Beats: Hot Spots installment at Baseball Prospectus.

A Rational Response to Curt Schilling

Curt Schilling has graced the baseball world with his opinion of the Cliff Lee trade. Via Ashley Fox of the Inquirer:

“I think trading Cliff Lee was the stupidest thing they’ve ever done, and they didn’t have to,” Schilling said. “They didn’t have to do it. It was a stupid, stupid move. They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.”

Among Philadelphia fans, there are two — and only two — reactions to this:

  • “Curt’s wrong. Screw Curt Schilling!”
  • “Curt’s right. Screw Ruben Amaro!”

Let’s see if I can find the rationality somewhere in the muck.

Curt’s criticism, sans the hyperbole, is legitimate even if you don’t agree with it. You have to give him the benefit of the doubt. I was against the Lee trade at the time as many people were. Schilling was a player, so he will obviously be coming from the viewpoint of a player. A player wants his GM to do everything in his power to win now, not later. Jamie Moyer, for example, doesn’t care about Anthony Gose or Trevor May; he cares about Raul Ibanez and Roy Halladay.

The saying goes that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, meaning that it’s easier to get people on your side if you act politely than if you are brash. Curt’s delivery of his opinions was brash, so regardless of what he says or how logical his points may be, people are going to react emotionally to it, especially given his reputation as a loudmouth. If you cut through your preconceived notions about Schilling and ignore his hyperbole, he actually does make the same logical objection that most Philadelphians have made since the trade: the Phillies would have a nearly-unbeatable playoff rotation with Halladay and Lee.

Now that I have defended Schilling, it is appropriate to state that I disagree with him. Neither side can definitively prove their case to any concrete conclusion; it’s just a difference of opinion, like chocolate or strawberry ice cream. I am going to quote some of Schill’s words and rebut them best as I can.

They could’ve had a World Series berth locked up right now with those two guys at the top of their rotation.

I’ve said it a lot here, but I’ll say it again: the playoffs are a crapshoot. That’s why the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the NL Wild Card with 83 wins, beat the 95-win Detroit Tigers in the 2006 World Series. Nothing is ever guaranteed in sports, but especially not in baseball. Those ’06 Cardinals, by the way? One ace: Chris Carpenter. Their second-best starter was Jeff Suppan with a 4.12 ERA. The ’08 Phillies had Cole Hamels… and Jamie Moyer. Last year’s Yankees had C.C. Sabathia… and A.J. Burnett who can hardly be considered an ace pitcher.

If a World Series goes all seven games and we assume they all ended in regulation, then there would be 63 total innings. Assuming that Roy Halladay would get games 1, 4, and 7, Cliff Lee would only pitch twice in the Series. If we assume, for the sake of argument, he pitched complete games both times (he came close last year), his 18 innings would only represent 28.6% of the total innings pitched. And he could pitch poorly — there’s no guarantee that Lee is the second coming of Walter Johnson.

Those guys would’ve finished legitimately 1-2 [as] Cy Young candidates on the same staff

Possible, but unlikely. Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter came close last year, but it is uncommon for teammates to finish highly in the voting for the same award. You would have to go back to the early 2001-02 when Schilling himself and Randy Johnson were 1-2 in the National League in back-to-back years.

Additionally, it would have been great to have Halladay and Lee (or Lee and Halladay) finishing #1-2 in the Cy Young balloting, but it isn’t of any real importance as long as the Phillies reach the post-season. Pitching is only part of the equation in creating a playoff contender.

They would’ve been a 110-win team.

There have been six teams in Major League Baseball history — just three since 1954 — that have won 110 or more games. The Phillies, as presently constructed, are barely a 90-win team according to most projections.

Overall, there’s no way to know for sure how good or bad the Phillies would have been with Lee, but it is safe to say that the roster would have been constructed differently. Maybe Amaro doesn’t have the financial flexibility to sign Placido Polanco to that below-market contract. Maybe Amaro isn’t so willing to sign Ross Gload or Brian Schneider, both upgrades to what was an unproductive bench last year.

The Roy Halladay deal, I think, gave them the perception that they depleted their minor-league system

[…]

If they hadn’t made that [Lee] deal, I think they felt like their minor-league system would’ve been trashed, even though it wasn’t. They still had a lot of talent. But it was to restock.

Here is Baseball America’s top-10 prospect list for the Phillies prior to the start of last season. Note: Carlos Carrasco (2), Lou Marson (3), Jason Donald (4), and Jason Knapp (10) were included in the Cliff Lee trade with Cleveland. Then the Phillies sent Kyle Drabek (5), Michael Taylor (6), and Travis D’Arnaud (7) to Toronto for Roy Halladay. That’s seven of the Phillies’ 10 top prospects traded for two players. Then note that J.A. Happ no longer qualifies as a prospect.

The only prospects from the top-ten list left are Domonic Brown and Zach Collier. Following the Halladay and Lee trades, Minor League analyst John Sickels did not give a single Phillies prospect an A. Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez, acquired from Seattle, were two of four Phillies who received a B- or better. I think it’s safe to say that the Halladay trade depleted the Phillies’ Minor League system, and the Lee trade helped replenish it.

If you draft right, you can literally restock your system in a year or two now.

Key words: If you draft right. Drafts are a gamble.  As Matt Swartz found out at Baseball Prospectus, “51% of first and second rounds picks make the majors.”

If the Phillies had kept Lee and let him walk as a free agent after the season, they would have received a first round pick and a sandwich pick (since Lee would undoubtedly receive Class A free agent status) from whoever signed him. Lee is expected to receive a lot of money in free agency, which means that he will likely sign with one of the better, more wealthy teams in baseball, such as the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. Both teams are expected to finish with at least 90 if not 95 wins apiece, which means the Phillies would have received a very late first round pick, between #25-30.

Looking at the statistics in the Swartz article, picks #25-30 have traditionally been the least productive. Of the first round picks from #1-30, the #25-30 set produced the least amount of Major Leaguers and the least amount of Major Leaguers who compiled 10 or more WARP3.

It is extremely difficult to build up a good farm system.

There’s no other reason why they made that deal, none whatsoever. That’s why they didn’t push trying to re-sign Cliff, because I think they felt like he would’ve been real receptive to it, so then they would’ve looked even worse, because ‘We traded a guy who wants to be here.

It was very clear that Lee enjoyed his time in Philadelphia and would have been receptive to signing an extension. However, Lee was not going to give the Phillies any breaks. Jon Heyman reported this back in December:

[…] word is, the star who dominated the 2009 postseason (4-0, 1.56) will be taking “no discount.”

[…] Lee is expected to seek about $23 million a year, which is the annual pay of Johan Santana and CC Sabathia […]

The Phillies signed Roy Halladay to a three-year, $60 million extension. That, of course, is an annual average value of $20 million, $3 million less per year than Lee. Furthermore, the Phillies likely would have had to commit at least five years to Lee; they committed only three with an option for a fourth to Halladay. The difference between the two is $60 million guaranteed versus $115 million guaranteed. Which would you choose if you were Ruben Amaro?

Schilling said that Halladay is “a fantastic guy” and “a hard worker,” but he pointed to Lee’s postseason performance last year and shook his head.

“He’s coming off a phenomenal run when he came over,” Schilling said of Lee. “He showed them [in] October he was going to be better than everybody else. You don’t know what you’re getting there. Doc’s never pitched in October. I think he’ll be great and be awesome and all that stuff, but he could get to October and not be the guy. Cliff proved that he can pitch in October. That’s a big loss.”

This is just a nonsensical argument. Cliff Lee had no post-season experience prior to joining the Phillies! He pitched just fine, didn’t he? Curt himself had no post-season experience prior to 1993, but that didn’t stop him from tossing a 2.59 ERA in the ’93 post-season, including that incredible complete game shut-out in Game 5 of the World Series against the Toronto Blue Jays.

I think it is evident that the facts don’t support Curt’s claims. Still, it doesn’t make him necessarily wrong to prefer a playoff-tested pitcher over a playoff newbie, nor does it make him wrong for valuing the here and now over the future. The responses I have seen so far have not given Curt the benefit of the doubt most human beings deserve when entering into a debate about the merits of a particular set of beliefs or a thought process.